There’s no debating Ischia’s unmatched beauty. A look at just about any photo of the place, and you can see it in the lush hillside, transparent blue and green ocean, and breathtaking Castello Aragonese. It’s no wonder Ischia was the backdrop for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s scandalous love affair.
But it’s the island’s rich bounty of food that is the ultimate temptress. I’ve always wondered if the intoxication of eating all those incredible fruits, vegetables, and shellfish contributed to Burton and Taylor’s lust for one another. After all, I credit the stuff with bringing together my husband Antonio and me. We met, thanks to my cousin, over dinner at Pirozzi, a restaurant in Ischia Ponte. Antonio insisted that I try the baba’ (a rum-soaked pastry) with strawberries and cream even though I’ve never been a fan. Well, it was akin to my favorite strawberry shortcake but with a delicate, moist pastry in place of cake or biscuit. And it was the beginning of Antonio’s winning in the quest for my heart. That night, he asked, “When should we get engaged?” After laughing off the ridiculousness of getting engaged to someone I had just met and who lived in Ischia, I thought, “Soon, if you keep sharing such tasty treats with me.”
That was really just the beginning. Our courtship and marriage, in fact, has been like one long buffet. While Antonio enjoys the American foods I’ve shared with him – Maine lobster, the best burgers on the planet, chili of all sorts, creamy macaroni and cheese, ribs dripping in barbecue sauce, luscious red velvet cupcakes, anything and everything with bacon, and most recently s’mores – most of our best meals have been in Ischia.
Just about everything begins with a tomato. While nearby San Marzano in Italy gets all the glory when it comes to growing tomatoes, Ischia’s humbler version just might be better. Blasphemy, I know. But I could live on Ischia tomatoes and bread with a touch of olive oil, salt, and basil. Come to think of it, for stretches at a time, my husband and I do just that. Well, at least that’s our breakfast pretty much everyday in the summer. When you bite into a bright red cherry tomato in Ischia, the juice and seeds will burst into your mouth (not to mention onto your face and shirt). Time and again, it will prove to you that the tomato is indeed a fruit with its sweetness and only the subtlest bit of acidity. Italians, who came to America, added a pinch of sugar to tomato-based sauces supposedly to cater to the sweet tooth of Americans. But I think it is just because American tomatoes are bitter in comparison, and they wanted them to more closely resemble what you would get in southern Italy.
In Ischia – and many parts down toward the Boot’s heel – tomatoes serve as the base for salads and sauce that covers pasta but also risotto, pizza, even eggs. Saying they are a staple of the southern Italian diet is an understatement. Tomatoes, of course, make an appearance in Ischia’s most famous dish – Coniglio Ischitano. Only an island, such as Ischia, could be most recognized for a meat dish despite its fresh, delectable seafood and its long history of producing the finest of fishermen. In the old days, back when everyone on the island lived a much simpler life, having a rabbit on your Sunday lunch table was a status symbol. It was as much a must as having fish on Christmas Eve and a rooster on Christmas Day. Even now, many traditional Ischitani families (including my own in the United States) eat rabbit and spaghetti or bucatini with its sauce every Sunday. Children often argue over who gets to eat the kidneys, and the eldest member usually wins the brain. Yes, they eat the whole thing, organs and all. I, myself, prefer to eat Thumper’s legs because, well, they taste like chicken. Really.
To this day, little rabbits reign supreme. One of my earliest childhood memories is of being in Ischia, when my aunt’s mother-in-law showed up at our house with a live rabbit that she killed in front of us to prove she was giving it to us fresh. Nowadays, when I visit my cousins in Ischia on a Saturday afternoon, I sit inside their kitchen while they kill the rabbit for Sunday’s meal on their porch. My family in America has kept up the traditions. There are famous Easter photos of my brother and I – as pre-schoolers – holding a fluffy, white bunny, who we thought was our pet. Actually, he was a gift from my uncle to my father. The next day, over lunch, we asked my father where our pet bunny went. Without flinching, he said, “He ran away to be in the circus,” as he popped rabbit meat into each of our mouths. Yes, we ate the Easter bunny on Easter. No joke. Still, one bite into soft rabbit meat just barely touched by that simple combination of tomato, olive oil, a head of garlic, herbs, and white wine, and I return to every family get together we’ve ever had packed into someone’s house or cantina. Americans have pot roast or meatloaf, and we have rabbit.
This is not to diminish that seafood I keep mentioning. The baba’ caught my attention, but my husband has kept me by his side by luring me with mussels and clams. I’d like nothing more than a bathtub full of the “saute di vongole,” which is a dish composed of tiny clams (with gorgeous striped shells), olive oil, garlic, and white wine yet again. Sometimes, there’s some kick with a touch of hot red pepper, and I’d be fine either way. A loaf of grilled Italian bread (or two) would serve as my sponge. I order this pretty much everywhere we dine in Ischia, and most of the chefs know to start making it as I walk into the joint. Whenever I celebrate my birthday in Ischia, I savor it with a bowl of linguine in clam sauce.
Clams and mussels in Ischia are not at all fishy or slimy. My father, who has often eaten them raw there, says it’s like putting a bit of the sea in your mouth. There’s a saltiness and brininess that wakes up your taste buds in the same way that potato chips do. It goes down nice and easy, and you can’t eat just one.
The shellfish is also the perfect excuse to sample Ischia’s lemons in their rawest form. When I order grilled mussels, I hold open the shell and squeeze a lemon wedge directly onto the meat. Then, I slurp up the mussel and the lemon juice, which makes my tongue dance in a way nothing else can. It’s simply sweet, slightly sour, and totally refreshing. You never make that sour puss face when you eat anything made of an Ischia lemon. Granted, nearby Procida is more famous for its yellow goodness. But the world owes its gratitude to Ischia’s lemons, which were used to create limoncello liqueur. (Don’t listen to anyone who says this drink was invented in Capri because they don’t know what they’re talking about.)
Ischia’s past as a volcano has made the ground ultra fertile for growing lemons and all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Its volcanic soil lends a richness that surpasses any produce you’ve ever bitten into in the United States. I’m not even sure Florida oranges (and I’m a lover of those babies) come close. Freshly picked peaches are as sweet as the ones you’d find in an American cobbler. I’ve been known to eat an entire basket of those peaches by myself. While the grapes are mostly used for wine making in the fall, you won’t be able to resist popping a couple in your mouth and eating them, pit and all. It tastes like you are drinking grape juice from the bottle. I think you get the point and now you are thoroughly hungry for delicious Ischia, Italy.
Di Meglio uses the written word to help families create memories and stick together. You can follow her on Facebook at Francesca’s Newlyweds Nest and on Twitter @ItalianMamma10.